The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Picador | Paperback, 180 pages
Publication Date: February 12, 2009
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

“Eternal truths are ultimately invisible, and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression – in fact, nothing can prevent it from doing so.” –  ( Chapter 7, page 116)

I have never appreciated poetry in numbers; nor have I ever found it to be romantic. Mostly it’s because my brain is an utter wasteland when it comes to Math. I hated it – with a passion. If it were compared to poetry, I’d say Math is composed of a series of foreign words that were simply incomprehensible to me. Now that I’m older, however, Math ceased being an intricate puzzle I couldn’t solve. It simply became part of my daily life.

If only I’d paid more attention in lectures, then perhaps I’d have been more inclined to have a better grasp and understanding of numbers. Because with terms like amicable numbers or twin primes, Math becomes this thing that sounded less daunting, and less complicated. In fact, the reader and the part-time writer in me would’ve probably appreciated it a bit more. However, when you start adding equations and formulae, my mind simply couldn’t process.

I think that’s what happened in the book. I loved the human elements and emotions in the story but towards the end, it required the analytics that had little to do with those aforementioned.

However, this book isn’t all about Mathematics. This follows the story of a housekeeper hired by an old lady to look after her brother in law. He’s a retired professor with a brilliant mind. Unfortunately, that brilliant mind is addled by a memory that only lasts for about 80 minutes. He gets by with little notes of reminders clipped on to his suit: people he knows, things he did, things he’s supposed to do. He’s a walking reminder board. His is a very sad existence. He quickly forgets the people he knows in less than two hours, and on top of that, he only retained memories that had happened before his accident; because of that, he goes through housekeepers as anyone goes through shirts. He needed to be handled with understanding and patience as one would a child. And that is ultimately how I perceived him throughout the story. He retreats inside his mind with numbers for company.

Enter the housekeeper and her son. Every morning, the professor would ask her the same question:

“What’s your shoe size?” 

And that becomes the diving board for which their day would begin.

Furthermore, the Professor did not like that idea that her son was left alone for hours until she gets home from tending to his needs.  The son’s affinity to baseball, and the professor’s love for statistics made for a bonding like that of a grandparent and grandchild. Thus begins a relationship between three people that transcends the scope of familial dynamics. It was such a touching thing to witness, considering the only way the professor could remember them was through a drawn caricature of their faces.

It is difficult to manifest into words exactly how I feel about this book. I can sit here and tell you about the poignant relationship between the professor and the housekeeper, but I feel it simply wouldn’t be enough. There are books that a person cannot understand simply by reading someone else’s review. This novel is one of them. I think it’s not for everybody. And if you were like me who was drawn to the book by some romantic notions (the title certainly implied something), you will be disappointed.

Yoko Ogawa’s writing style is hard to pin down. Perhaps it’s because they’re translations of her original work. I always feel like I’m missing the true essence of her writing, and that something gets lost in the process. In the end, this book did not appeal to my Math-deficient mind. You need to have an appreciation for numbers; you need to find the joy in finding solving Mathematical theorems. And most of all, you need to appreciate poetry in numbers.

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